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Serpent Lake in Crosby is twice as clear as it was a decade ago

Fund-backed work targeting Serpent Lake achieved its goal, reversing a downward trend in water quality. The lake is twice as clear as it was 10 years ago. Stormwater projects in Deerwood and Crosby reduce how much phosphorus enters the lake.

Smoke from distant wildfires created a hazy view of the Summer Place cabins on July 20, 2021, from a Serpent Lake dock in Deerwood.
Smoke from distant wildfires created a hazy view of the Summer Place cabins on July 20, 2021, from a Serpent Lake dock in Deerwood. Heavy rains had flooded some — but not all — of the cabins.
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

DEERWOOD — Targeted conservation projects in Deerwood, Crosby and nearby Cranberry Lake that keep 4.7 tons of pollutant-carrying, algae-feeding sediment out of Serpent Lake each year helped to reverse a downward trend in its water quality.

Water clarity exceeded 30 feet in July. The season’s average was 27.2 feet. At its murkiest in 2012, water clarity measured 12.1 feet, according to a news release from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources .

More than $1.5 million in projects — backed by a $1.2 million targeted watershed pilot program Clean Water Fund grant the board awarded to the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District in 2014 — keep an estimated 80 pounds of phosphorus out of Serpent Lake annually.

“We didn’t have a budget to take on … a project like this ourselves,” Deerwood Mayor Michael Aulie stated in the news release. “The grant opportunity was extremely helpful. We’d have never been able to do it, plus we don’t have the expertise on our staff to take on a project like that.”

Mike Aulie headshot
Deerwood Mayor Mike Aulie

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Water quality

One pound of phosphorus can produce up to 500 pounds of algae. Phosphorus levels averaged 0.01 microgram per liter (ug/L) in 2021 and 2020. The state’s threshold for the region is 0.03 ug/L. From 2013 through 2019, averages ranged from 0.013 to 0.015 ug/L.

“I think this is a great success story. If you look at the long-term trends, this lake was clearly declining in water clarity,” District Manager Melissa Barrick stated in the news release. “Within a short period of time after diagnosing a root cause, we were able to fix those problems.”

The SWCD’s shift in focus from projects to the people who make them happen was equally significant, according to officials.

Melissa Barrick headshot
Melissa Barrick
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

“I used to think that people didn’t care about conservation because they didn’t do the actions that I perceived I wanted them to do. ... It’s really more of a people art than the hard science itself,” Barrick stated.

The district gained the buy-in from partners necessary to complete the work, built community support and spawned water-quality work elsewhere in the county — including stormwater work in nearby Crosslake.

“A lot of the water quality projects or conservation isn’t necessarily about the project itself. It’s more about trying to figure out how to work with the different people so that we can all win,” Barrick said. “I really try to look at things as opportunities for what people are already wanting.”

For example, after spending nearly a year trying to convince the Crosby City Council to allow a rain garden in a city park, the SWCD instead focused on resolving a longtime flooding issue. The result replaced a failing 1920s-era stormwater pipe.

The pipe filters runoff from 18 acres through a system of underground sediment traps and rain gardens. The targeted watershed grant contributed $200,000.

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“You’ve got to be looking at it as what’s in it for the other person, not just us on the conservation side of things,” Barrick stated. “Once we changed gears and tried to solve a problem that they wanted to solve, it was like night and day.”

Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Melissa Barrick, Senior Project Manager Jay Michels, Serpent Lake Association Vice President Terry Tichenor and Crow Wing SWCD Board Supervisor Jim Chamberlin discuss the targeted watershed project that reduced phosphorus-loading to Serpent Lake in Deerwood
From left: Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Melissa Barrick, Senior Project Manager Jay Michels, Serpent Lake Association Vice President Terry Tichenor and Crow Wing SWCD Board Supervisor Jim Chamberlin discuss the targeted watershed project that reduced phosphorus-loading to Serpent Lake in Deerwood and eliminated a flooding problem at some of the Summer Place cabins.
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

Deerwood

Aulie said the council was cautious about making a financial commitment when the SWCD first approached the city of 532.

“It took a little bit of time for us to grasp the vision of it. Crow Wing Soil and Water worked with us pretty well on that,” Aulie stated.

Once it learned the grant would be the primary funding source, the city agreed to support and maintain the project.

Patrick Radtke headshot
Patrick Radtke
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

Deerwood Public Works Foreman Patrick Radtke completed much of the city’s $27,000 in-kind work. He’s also responsible for some of the maintenance and has checked the Summer Place project after storms.

“We have had quite a few heavy rainfalls after we put that one in, and it handled it great,” Radtke stated in the news release. “The homeowners in that area are just overwhelmed (with) just how awesome it turned out. The people are happy.”

Serpent Lake

With 9 miles of shoreline, 1,100-acre, 62-foot-deep Serpent Lake is among the Cuyuna Lakes area’s primary recreational and residential lakes. It draws swimmers, anglers, boaters and waterskiers to tourism-dependent Deerwood and Crosby.

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About 280 homes ring the lake. Roughly half of those lakeshore residents belong to the Serpent Lake Association. The lake association spearheaded the Serpent Lake-focused work.

Jim Chamberlin headshot
Jim Chamberlin
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

While the SWCD staff implements projects, Crow Wing SWCD Board Chairman Jim Chamberlin said in the news release that it is the partnerships, citizen-driven conservation planning and open communication that make water quality improvements possible.

“Sure, the water quality benefits that we’re seeing are huge,” said Chamberlin, a former Crow Wing SWCD technician who grew up in Deerwood. “More important is the success if you do the right thing on the land, you can turn things around for lakes that are degraded.”

Barrick said the Serpent Lake experience made it easier to develop specific plans with measurable phosphorus-reduction goals for One Watershed, One Plan within the Pine River watershed.

“In the end, I think you get a better result when you have a more specified plan rather than a plan that may include many options for all kinds of landowners,” Barrick said. “I think you can make better choices if you have that data to guide you on where you should work.”

MORE COVERAGE OF SERPENT LAKE AND CROW WING SWCD:
The Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District announced the winner of its 2022 Outstanding Conservationist Award.

Countywide, the SWCD developed water-quality goals for 21 of its 533 lakes.

“I think things need to be targeted because dollars are limited. At the same time, I think education is huge because we all need to be conservationists,” Chamberlin said.

It took a little bit of time for us to grasp the vision of it.
— Mike Aulie

That includes writing conservation into ordinances and encouraging landowners to maintain their septic systems and restore their shoreline buffers, according to officials.

“I’ve seen attitudes change on Serpent Lake. Parents of friends I grew up with on the lake (are) putting in buffers and rain gardens,” Chamberlin said. “I think it already has changed attitudes and actions on the lake.”

Terry Tichenor headshot
Terry Tichenor
Contributed / Ann Wessel, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

Serpent Lake Association Vice President Terry Tichenor said in the news release that education is among the lake association’s primary roles. That includes reminding lakeshore property owners that good water quality equals higher property values.

Tichenor moved to Serpent Lake full-time in 2014 and gets out on the water or ice three to four times a week. He has noticed that “well over 50%” of lakeshore property owners have installed some type of shoreline buffer to filter runoff.

“There’s not really a history of the lake being more clear than it is now. We’re riding a crest, and we want to do everything we can to keep it there,” Tichenor said.

Project highlights

  • Deerwood — Grant funds contributed $500,000 to stormwater treatment at the 13 Summer Place Association cabins; $85,000 to infiltration basins that slow runoff at nearby Skone Park; and about $107,000 (through a related grant) to a rain garden and check dam project on private land that reduces flooding on Cross Road. 
  • Crosby — $300,000 supported a city stormwater treatment and flood reduction project. 
  • Elsewhere — $90,000 supported a Cranberry Lake alum treatment that bound phosphorus; $90,000 helped Crosby, Deerwood and Ironwood Township adopt stormwater ordinances.

Source: Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources

Related Topics: SERPENT LAKEDEERWOODCROW WING SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICTLAKE QUALITYWATER QUALITYPHOSPHORUS
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